How to Write Epic Poetry

John Milton is as good as his writing.

He grew up wanting to write poetry, but held off on writing anything spectacularly huge until later in his life.  When he had succeeded in his career, had a family, and gone blind, he finally decided to write some epic poetry, the kind he always knew he could write.  He dictated Paradise Lost, and we still praise him for it.

But was it some act of genius?  Was it a lightning-strike of a Muse, a moment of inspiration unparalleled before and since?  Of course not.  He spent time on this thing.  He thought long and hard about how he was going to write it, who the characters were, and what story he wanted to tell.  He weighed the options of language— should he write it in English, or a more epic language of Greek or Latin?  (He was fluent in all three, and probably several more.)  Should it rhyme?  All of these deep, difficult questions plagued him, but he knocked them down one by one until he could produce the masterpiece we have today.

My point?  There’s a process, my friends, to writing epic poetry.  Homer, Virgil, Milton, all created amazing, lasting works— and you can too. (more…)

Writing as a Performance Art

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the concept of oral storytelling.

About a month or two ago, a friend sent me a link to some spoken word poetry.  It was fantastic.  The words themselves were beautiful, but the passion and skill of the performers made it better.  Around the same time, I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Worldbuilders readings of Jabberwocky and Green Eggs and Ham.  Anyone can read those stories, but he took it out of monotonous rhythm and made it interesting.  Plus, the accent.  Then I started on epic poetry.

If you’re at a party and they start passing around the Homer, just say no.

Last week, I found myself with the smudgy draft of a short epic poem, at nearly midnight.  It’s the short story equivalent of a real epic poem, and considering the inherent structure I’ve dissected and essayed upon since then, it’s doesn’t quite fall into all the parameters of epic poetry— but it has the basics.  I wrote a short poem in unrhymed blank verse, set in my current storyworld, about a mythic hero’s last sacrifice.  No, it doesn’t invoke the Muse.  No, it doesn’t begin in medias res.  Unfortunately, I skimped on both allegory and epic simile, because I haven’t created enough of this world to be that academic, and I still had a bit of a purple prose filter on.  But still, I consider it epic.

Probably the biggest reason is this: it’s written to be performed. (more…)

How to Find the Purpose of a Scene

Why are  you writing?

Well, obviously because I had a traumatic experience when I was young with a pair of wild gophers, and ever since words have flown from my pen even when it’s capped (it’s rather creepy, actually), so I write as catharsis and to keep quiet the horrible gopher demons inside.

Ah… no.  That’s not what I mean.  When you’re writing a story, or a scene, or even a paragraph, what are you trying to accomplish?  Why are you writing those words?

With delicate things like humor and poetry, knowing your purpose can be as important as knowing how to tell a joke or create beautiful imagery.  A joke without purpose is a joke in the wrong place— it doesn’t add to the emotion, it doesn’t forward the plot.  Instead, laughter will often destroy your hard-earned effect.  (This is why laughing at an insult is so effective.)  In the same way, imagery without purpose is useless.  Imagery that creates a specific emotion is poetry, and readers call it beautiful.  Imagery that isn’t attached to any sort of emotion has no reason to be there, and readers call it purple prose.  Without purpose, both humor and poetry are lost causes.

So how do you figure out your purpose for a scene?  Generally, my purpose in writing a scene is to tell a story, and to tell it well.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell me how to use poetry and humor.  Indeed, trying too hard destroys your ability to tell a story well, so stated this way, my purpose tells me nothing.  But it’s obvious, isn’t it?  Your purpose for any scene is going to change from scene to scene.  That way you don’t just fill a book with the same scene, told the same way, over and over.  As the needs of the story change, your purpose for the scene changes. (more…)

The Right Word

Beautiful words are daunting.

Thankfully, beautiful words aren’t what we’re looking for.  Since beauty is subjective anyway, it’s difficult to find any one qualification that makes a beautiful word.  Think about it.  What makes something poetic?  Rhyming?  Not necessarily.  Syllables?  Nope.  Metaphors?  Not at all.  The only thing common to everything we call poetic is beauty, and that’s subjective.  What makes it poetic?

Simple answer: it’s the Right Word.

The Right Word could have many definitions and facets.  It could be exactly what it says, the correct word for a specific instance.  Or it could be a sentence, again perfect in that space.  Or it could be a paragraph, artfully short or vivid.  The Right Word is any selection of words that happens to be perfect for its situation.

Think about that for a moment.  Beautiful words are just perfect.  That’s it.  In order to write beautifully, you just have to write… perfectly. (more…)

On Writing Beautifully

Beautiful words are daunting.

Well, let me restate.  Trying to write beautiful words is daunting.  Beautiful words are beautiful— it’s the writing that gets hard.

Neil Gaiman.  Laini Taylor.  Patrick Rothfuss.  These people have beautiful words flowing from their pens on every page.  Maggie Stiefvater.  Cornelia Funke.  Miriam Joy.  (Yes, I’m including her, because, guys, her book.)  With all of these people, it seems like they roll out of bed spouting poetic prose.  Even their headdesks are eloquent.

Then there’s me, who’s still trying to get his protagonist’s head on straight.  I can maybe make one pretty word in a million, but a whole string of them?  That makes me headdesk, and that just emphasizes the point: I am not naturally poetic.  Those of you following the Teens Can Write, Too! blog might have noticed by now: John Hansen posted this exact complaint a couple days ago, about his own writing.  We have this in common, I guess.  Pretty writing is not natural to us.  In his post, John affirms that it’s okay to use Orwellian prose (prose as a clear window to the story, not distracting), and your personal style is always better than copying someone else’s.  He’s right.

Some of my favorite authors have very clear, Orwellian prose.  Brandon Sanderson is the most notable; several times on Writing Excuses, he’s claimed— even boasted of— his non-poetic style.  It’s true.  He tells his story plainly, without any of the frills or vivid descriptions that often characterize fantasies.  He writes what the story needs and no more, preferring to emphasize his setting, his plot, and his characters.  Personally, I set more store in those three things than the style of a book.  As long as the words are serviceable, I’m fine with them.  I’m not going to dock points for plain prose.

Especially at the beginning of a writer’s learning curve, I’d rather have a coherent plot and good characters than pages of brilliant writing.  Without purpose, those words are useless.  It’s more important for a learning writer to gain skill at creating and developing a story than at obsessing over the Right Word.

If I agree with everyone, why am I writing this? (more…)

Incarceron and Sapphique– Double Book Review

They look interesting, don’t they?

This is a book review for two books I read a long while ago– Incarceron and Sapphique, both by Catherine Fisher.  This review might be slightly off-target, but I’m fairly sure I can remember my first impressions, as well as impressions gained by a longer period of thought.

Incarceron — a futuristic prison, sealed from view, where the descendants of the original prisoners live in a dark world torn by rivalry and savagery. It is a terrifying mix of high technology — a living building which pervades the novel as an ever-watchful, ever-vengeful character, and a typical medieval torture chamber — chains, great halls, dungeons. A young prisoner, Finn, has haunting visions of an earlier life, and cannot believe he was born here and has always been here. In the outer world, Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, is trapped in her own form of prison — a futuristic world constructed beautifully to look like a past era, an imminent marriage she dreads. She knows nothing of Incarceron, except that it exists. But there comes a moment when Finn, inside Incarceron, and Claudia, outside, simultaneously find a device — a crystal key, through which they can talk to each other. And so the plan for Finn’s escape is born …

It sounds cool, doesn’t it?  A living prison surrounding living inmates, none of which can be found from the Outside.  I thought it looked great as a story, and I got Incarceron as soon as I saw it. (more…)

Poetry = Fail

Poetry.  I can’t write it, I can’t read it, and I can’t critique it.  Why not, you ask?  Why should I tell you, I ask?  Here ends the post.

Goodness, you are annoying.  You must want more than that, and yet you’re too stubborn to ask.  I ended the post early expecting you to ask, and you don’t!

Oh, well.  I’ll go on, don’t you fret.

When I read anything, I read pretty quickly.  If something isn’t too interesting, I’m scanning, using only seconds for each paragraph.  Even if it is interesting, I’m still going pretty fast.  And that’s with prose.

When it’s poetry and the lines

are like this

my eyes start speeding up

until I’m going

at a rate of


two lines per


or less.


I’ll start skipping stanzas and

before I know it

And that’s why you should

feed a platypus


My eyes  begin to speed up when I see short lines.  It’s just the way I read.  Unfortunately, it leads to large holes in the middle of poems that are probably well written.  If the lines don’t rhyme, even worse occurs.  Usually when I read rhyming poetry I’ll be looking for the rhyming words at the end, and if there are none I’ll realize it and start skipping entire lines, then stanzas.  The same happens with irregular amounts of syllables.  In regular poetry, the syllable amounts match, the words rhyme, and I can probably get by if I slow myself down sufficiently by counting out the separate syllables with taps.  But it doesn’t happen often.

I must confess that in books like the Redwall series I would always skip over the songs.  Why put songs in literature, anyway?  It doesn’t make much sense to me.

That brings me to another point.  Why can I tolerate songs?  Regular music with words?  Because, duh, it’s music.  I’m hearing it, not reading it.  My mental acceleration only occurs in reading.

I can’t write poetry because I can’t study the good stuff.  The only reason I can write prose well is because I’ve grown up studying the right way to do it.  If I can’t read poetry, I can’t write it either.  And for me, poetry is not instinct.  I can barely get together a list of five rhyming words without half of my brain cells popping off into oblivion.

And all of this leads to my last point: I cannot critique poetry either.

If you can’t write it and you can’t read it, you can’t be expected to write a review or give thoughts on poetry.  Sorry, but I can’t do it and I won’t try.  So there!  *throws temper tantrum*

For you poets out there:  This is not just an enormous ploy to get you to stop expecting me to critique your stuff.  It’s my failing, not yours, so don’t be offended in the slightest.

And, to back up my points in this post, here is some poetry that came to me recently as perfect for the Phils’ theme song:

Past, present, future,
We’ll do without a suture,
If you’ll only put your* trust in Phils!

*”Put your” to rhyme with “future” and “suture”

Wanted: Constructive Criticism

Unscheduled post today, but what the hey.  One of my friends needs a piece of her poetry constructively critiqued, constructively here meaning in a way that gives her more to go on than just “Great!” or “Brilliant!”  Not that she wouldn’t like hearing that too, but it isn’t that helpful.  Anyway, bear in mind that this wasn’t mine.  I won’t reply to any comments because of that, unless you’re complimenting me on my choice of friends.  Here it is:

A bird
Wings black as pitch…
Flies across the night sky
A blur of feathers.

It is invisible to those who don’t look,
A speck of black
Against the sky
Full of stars.

It swoops,

No one is with the bird.
No one will ever be with the bird.
It is alone…

Only one sees the bird.
It whispers secrets in my ear.
I’ve sworn not to tell them.

But it’s very tempting…

A Horrible Poem

I wrote this poem last night for a friend who’s doing Script Frenzy and couldn’t get going.  She knows who she is, so I won’t point her out.  This poem is horrible and shouldn’t be taken personally.  I hope no one is offended.

There once was a writer who wanted a script,

So she thought and she thought until one day she tipped.

She thought, “There’s a contest in April, I might as well try it.”

She thought it was better than her last failed diet. (more…)

A Stupidity Poem: Partial Insanity

This is a poem I thought up and wrote last night in the dark in a car driving an hour across our state. As most of you know, I’m no poet, but if I can write a poem without rhyming words like “Scallop” and “Dollop”, I feel all right. So here it is:

I feel tied.
Like a shoe whose laces are just a little too short for the kind of knot the owner is tying,
I feel tied.
But why?

I feel chained.
Like an extremely strong ear with a lust for blood who has been captured by hunters because he tried to steal a stuffed wallaby,
I feel chained.
Again, why?

The bonds tighten.
Like one of those blood pressure gauging things that doctors use in my check-ups being operated by a hyperactive gorilla,
They tighten.
Do I die?

Shall I expire?
Like a bottle of milk that has sat on the back of the shelf of the refrigerated section of a little-frequented grocery store for too long,
Shall I expire?
Not I.

My bonds don’t tighten; I swell.
Like an already over-inflated balloon connected to a pump without an off switch, also operated by the aforementioned hyperactive gorilla,
I swell.
But why?

My skin bursts.
Like the semipermeable membrane of an egg sitting between the white and the shell when it meets with a craft knife at a high speed,
My skin bursts.
I don’t lie.

Look at me;
I’m free
From the mind
That may bind.
What greets me
Is insanity.

I return.
Like a spring-loaded yo-yo with a string made of rubber bands that is thrown straight up,
I return.
I sigh.

For a moment,
I am free.
This is my partial


This is not written out of any experiences I have had; I just had the idea to make a poem with only a couple rhyming lines and huge similes between them. I started writing and it just popped out. It means exactly nothing.